MANILA, September 13, 2003  (STAR) By Nikko Dizon By Jose Katigbak STAR Washington Bureau  - The peace rally that was intended to restore order and unity in the country instead became an instrument of chaos and mayhem to thousands of commuters caught in the ensuing massive traffic gridlock.

As a crowd estimated by police at 600,000 gathered at the Quirino Grandstand to light candles for peace, several thousand more cursed in their overheating cars as traffic stood still for hours.

Thousands of pedestrians seethed as public transportation became scarce in Manila’s streets, especially P. Burgos, Lacson, United Nations Avenue, España, Andalucia, Del Pan, Bonifacio Drive, Quezon Boulevard and Taft Avenue.

Officials of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) admitted they were helpless in controlling the traffic mess that snaked around a huge crowd.

"No matter how many traffic enforcers we send to a venue, we can’t untangle traffic when people are coming from different places and meet at a common point of convergence," said Angelito Vergel de Dios, executive director of MMDA’s Traffic Operations Center.

He said that the most authorities can do is warn people to expect heavy traffic.

"Some people can avoid traffic, but for those who cannot avoid it, they really just have to make a sacrifice," Vergel de Dios told The STAR.

But he also clarified that the MMDA was not the lead agency in charge of the traffic yesterday. He said they sent 10 motorcycle units to augment the Western Police District’s traffic force.

Traffic started to build up along Taft Avenue near the Manila City Hall as early as 2 p.m. as hundreds of marchers carrying streamers calling for peace occupied the main thoroughfares all the way to the Quirino Grandstand.

As vehicles tried to find alternative routes to their destinations, even small city streets were clogged, creating more traffic woes for traffic enforcers who frantically tried to untangle the mess.

Bonifacio Drive and Roxas Boulevard were closed to traffic at 2:45 p.m.

The STAR tried to get the side of the WPD Traffic Enforcement Office but was told that even chief Superintendent Gil de Castro was busy untangling the traffic gridlock.

‘Pesteng buhay to. Tayo ang apektado sa pagpapapogi ng mga mayors na ito (What a pesky life this is. We are the ones affected by the activities of these mayors)," commented an irate jeepney driver.

The rally was initiated by the Metro Manila Mayors’ League amid threats of destabilization attempts, terrorism, military mutiny and political mudslinging.

The marchers, composed mostly of students, teachers and government employees, were brought by local officials of the 13 cities and towns of Metro Manila. But others came all the way from Pampanga, Tarlac, Bulacan, Laguna, Batangas, Cavite and other nearby provinces.

Over 200 public utility buses and hundreds of passenger jeepneys were rented by participating local municipalities to transport the participants to and from the rally.

Medical emergency teams, bomb disposal teams and barangay tanods were also on stand-by during the three-hour rally.

WPD-Public Information Office chief Senior Inspector Gerry Agunod said that although the number of spectators exceeded their projection, police were able to properly escort the rallyists. One thousand operatives from the WPD were deployed for the occasion.

The highlight of the affair was the lighting of 15 white candles by the Metro Manila mayors including Feliciano Belmonte Jr. of Quezon City, Manila’s Atienza, Reynaldo Malonzo of Caloocan City, and Wenceslao Trinidad of Pasay City.

"We, the leaders of Metro Manila’s cities and municipalities belonging to different political parties and having different political persuasions, firmly believe that what we need right now is to set aside our partisan political agenda and interests and unite for the good of our country and our people," a manifesto signed by the mayors said.

The 16th candle was lighted by President Arroyo as the crowd sang "Let there be peace on Earth." — With Nestor Etolle, Edu Punay, Cecille Suerte Felipe

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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